The first authorized reissue of the 1982 cult novel by June Gibbons, one half of the storied “silent twins.”
The Pepsi-Cola Addict, by June-Alison Gibbons,
Strange Attractor Press, 143 pages, $21.95
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A brief, shimmering mirage of a novel, The Pepsi-Cola Addict will forever be overshadowed by the extraordinary story of its author, June Gibbons. Born to Barbadian parents in 1963, June and her sister Jennifer grew up in dreary Haverfordwest, Wales, a town terribly uncongenial to Black identical twins with speech impediments. Overwhelmed by difference, they withdrew into sameness, forming a secret world of two. They stopped talking to anyone but each other. In public, they synchronized their movements; if drinking tea, they would lift their cups at the same exact time, in excruciating slowness. In private, they conversed in a sped-up patois likened by eavesdroppers to the twittering of birds. Their bond sustained, suppressed, absorbed them. “You are Jennifer. You are me,” Jennifer told June when she felt her twin drifting apart. Their story together ends as a work of fiction might: convinced that her own death would set her sister free, Jennifer suddenly expired, at age twenty-nine, of acute myocarditis—a profound and bewildering instance of literal heartbreak.
The tragedy of the sisters Gibbons has gripped imaginations since Marjorie Wallace’s bestseller of 1986, The Silent Twins. A major motion picture of the same name was released last year, the latest in a raft of artworks inspired by the sisters. As Hilton Als observed in “We Two Made One,” his 2000 New Yorker profile of the Gibbonses, it’s tempting to turn their lives into symbols—of racism and societal neglect, but also of parts of ourselves, the very precarity of personhood. Their silence speaks to us.
But the silent twins were not exactly silent. Around Christmas of 1979, they enrolled in a creative-writing correspondence course, and despite being jointly registered as student 8201, began separate writing journeys. Authorship held the promise of individuation. Like the young Brontës building their paracosm, the Gibbonses wrote with feverish haste: novels, diaries, poems, plays for their dolls. Ardent Americanophiles, they set their stories stateside. Jennifer produced The Pugilist, about a surgeon who replaces his son’s heart with that of the family mastiff, and Discomania, a tale of dance-fueled dystopia set three years in the future. In 1980, the siblings pooled their dole money to publish June’s lone novel, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, through a vanity press; having failed to otherwise construct viable authorial selves, they soon embarked on a five-week theft and arson spree. The book was released on the first day of 1982. (Of 185 copies made, exactly one was given to its author.) Five months later, both twins were sentenced to indefinite detention at Broadmoor, the notorious max-security hospital for the criminally insane, where they remained for nearly twelve years. Jennifer died on the day they transferred to a minimum-security facility; June didn’t regain her freedom until the following year.
The Pepsi-Cola Addict has long enjoyed a cult following as an exemplar of so-called outsider literature, despite being virtually impossible to obtain: for decades the book was exceedingly rare, available only in a few libraries in the United Kingdom; a bootlegged photocopy has occasionally surfaced in some obscure corner of the internet. For many, its official reissuing by Strange Attractor marks a historic literary event. For June, who is now sixty, it is a chance to finally share her words on her own terms.
Unraveling in close third person, TPCA follows an eighth grader by the Elvis-evoking name of Preston Wildey-King who lives in Malibu with his widowed mother and bratling sister. “Preston, nonchalant about his aspect of life, was probably and accountably turning into a pepsi-cola addict,” Gibbons writes in her elegantly stilted style. Preston’s problem—he averages around three hundred cans a day—has driven away his cheerleader girlfriend, Peggy Kennedy. Torn between Peggy and Pepsi, Preston must also navigate sexual advances from his married math teacher (requited) and his best friend, Ryan (not). Meanwhile, he falls in with Ryan’s hooligan brothers, who persuade him to knock off a store with them. When the fuzz arrives, Preston is too distracted chugging Pepsi to flee. After a harrowing stint in juvie, he finally returns home, only to learn that Ryan has been slain by the police. Wracked with loneliness, he washes a bottle of barbiturates down with the drink he dubs the “high life.”
White, American, male, popular, expressive, Preston seems to be everything June is not. Yet through him, she engaged themes of thwarted communication and pathological dependency all too applicable to her folie à deux, while the novel’s scenes of crime, captivity, and empty sex eerily foreshadow the twins’ own transgressions. In any case, TPCA merits significance not only as a psychobiographical curio, but as a literary work in its own right. Like Kafka’s Amerika, with its sword-wielding Lady Liberty and bridge connecting Boston to Manhattan, Gibbons’s USA is a dreamlike deformity, a heterotopia its author will never set foot in. The Malibu conjured is no sybaritic enclave, but a Dickensian city of crumbling, rat-infested tenements and streets choked with garbage. Everywhere, a febrile heat threatens to melt away the veneer of realism; empty space seems to pant, unquenchable, as though it might swallow Preston whole: “The air suddenly breathed in, causing the sun to beat down more powerfully.” “The inky darkness outside looked like an open mouth.” (Some readers may bemoan the angular dialogue, adverbial excess, and off-kilter diction, but this one is grateful that phrases like “corrugated hair,” “flagrant eyes,” “elaborate silence,” and “life is a confusement” were spared an editor’s red pen.)
The book’s mix of gangland violence, unhappy families, and lachrymose young men invites comparison to S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), another novel whose fourteen-year-old male protagonist was written by a sixteen-year-old girl. As with Hinton’s foundational YA bildungsroman, Gibbons’s story tracks an alienated youth fucked up and over by feelings and power structures. But unlike Hinton’s antihero, Preston fails to master his emotions, which “hover,” “creep,” “dominate,” “rouse,” and “rise”—given a weird agency, his restless affects become the conspirators of a twisting plot from which no moral can be gleaned.
“Imagination will set you free,” declares the anodyne tagline for the film adaptation of the sisters’ lives. But June Gibbons didn’t secure her autonomy with her book, nor did she ennoble its main character with courage, wisdom, or hope. Her “outsider” novel is an inside job, a teenager’s unexpurgated vision of the scandalous awakenings of adolescence, of the terror of making choices, of becoming who you are. When Preston steps out of juvie, he finds himself overwhelmed by freedom. He sits by a “cerulean river” and peers into its surface, as if it might hold an answer, and is met only by his own reflection.
Zack Hatfield is a writer, an editor, and a twin living in New York.